Is a war between the great powers inevitable?

In 2034, the United States and China will be embroiled in a series of military conflicts that lead to the use of tactical nuclear weapons. Other countries – including Russia, Iran, and India – are drawn in. Suddenly the world is on the brink of World War III.

This scenario is portrayed in “2034: A Novel of the Next World War,” a compelling dystopian novel written by former NATO commander-in-chief Admiral James Stavridis with Elliot Ackerman. The book joins increasingly loud voices warning of an almost inevitable clash between the rising and the incumbent world power.

Harvard University Graham Allison called this phenomenon the Thucydides Trap. The Greek historian described this constellation using the example of the opponents at the time, according to which “the rise of Athens and the fear it instilled in Sparta made war inevitable”.

It is true that war has often occurred throughout history when a rising power challenged a ruling power. But there are notable exceptions. A war between the US and China is no more inevitable today than a war between the rising US and the falling British Empire a century ago.

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Given today’s environment, there are four compelling reasons to believe that US-China war can be avoided. Above all, any military conflict between the two states would quickly lead to nuclear war. The USA is thus in the same situation as it is towards the Soviet Union.

The “balance of horror” remains valid

Taiwan could easily become the tripwire of this century, as was the strategically vulnerable “Fulda Gap” in Germany during the Cold War. But the same “balance of horror” dynamics that contained the US-Soviet conflict also applies to the US and China.

And the international community would do everything in its power to ensure that a potential nuclear conflict does not materialize, as the consequences are transnational and – unlike climate change – would be immediate.

A conflict between the US and China would almost certainly take the form of a proxy war rather than a confrontation between great powers. Any superpower could take on a different side in an internal conflict in a country like Pakistan, Venezuela, Iran or North Korea and use a combination of economic, cyber and diplomatic instruments. We have seen this type of conflict many times: from Vietnam to Bosnia, the US has dealt with proxy rather than its main adversary.

Second, it’s important to remember that China has historically been taking it slow. Chinese military power has grown dramatically, but it still lags behind the US in almost all important areas.

China is not yet on a par with the USA militarily

For this reason, it would be too dangerous for China in its current development phase to let it come into direct conflict with the USA. If such a conflict arises, China would have little choice but to let the nuclear spirit out of the bottle.

When thinking about initial scenarios, we should therefore attach less weight to a mind game in which the Chinese deliberately bring about a military confrontation with America. The U.S. military tends to plan for the worst, however, and is currently focused on a potential direct conflict with China – a fixation with echoes of American-Soviet dynamism.

This increases the risk of being taken by surprise by other threats. Since the Korean War, asymmetric threats have repeatedly emerged as the most problematic for national security. Building armed forces prepared for the worst is no guarantee of success in the full spectrum of warfare.

The third reason to believe that a US-Chinese conflict can be avoided is that China has already won victories in the global soft power war. Despite all allegations that Covid-19 escaped from a laboratory in Wuhan, China weathered the pandemic much better than the US.

China is on course for expansion

And with its New Silk Road initiative to fund infrastructure development around the world, it has aggressively capitalized on the void left by US spending cuts during Donald Trump’s four-year presidency. Looking at the current status quo, the Chinese leadership could well conclude that they are on the right strategic path.

Last but not least, China and the US are economically closely intertwined. Despite Trump’s trade war, bilateral trade stood at around $ 650 billion in 2020, and China was the U.S.’s largest trading partner. The supply chains of both countries are tightly interconnected, and China holds more than a trillion dollars in US Treasuries, most of which it cannot easily sell off in order not to depreciate in value and suffer massive losses.

However, logic can be undermined by a single act and its unintended consequences. Something as simple as miscommunication can escalate a proxy war into an interstate conflagration. And as the situation in Afghanistan and Iraq shows, America’s track record in war-torn countries is not exactly encouraging.

China, meanwhile, has drastically expanded its interventions abroad. With its expansionist mentality, growing aid program and growing nationalism at home, China could all too easily launch foreign intervention that could threaten US interests.

Every superpower has to define its essential interests

In particular, the use of cyber tactics could undermine conventional military command and control systems and force political leaders to make poor decisions when more traditional options are no longer available.

And Sino-US economic ties could become less important, especially if China shifts from an export-led growth model to one based on domestic consumption, and if investment flows decline in both directions in the face of escalating bilateral tensions.

A “mistake” by one of the two countries is always possible. That is why diplomacy is so important. Each country has to define its inalienable national interests vis-à-vis the other country, and both have to look at the same issue from the other’s perspective.

It may be difficult to accept (and an unpleasant phrase), but civil rights in China may not be a major US national interest. Conversely, China should understand that the US does have a substantial interest in Taiwan.

The US and China will clash in many ways. But direct war doesn’t have to be part of it.

The authors: Charles Krulak is a retired general, was commanding the US Marines and President of Birmingham-Southern College. Alex Friedman is a co-founder of the Jackson Hole Economics think tank and was the chief financial officer of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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